WEEKEND EDITION

What Brownsville Wants In A Mayor

| April 16, 2013 12:41 PM

In order to gain a microcosmic perspective on the actual opinions of New Yorkers about the upcoming election, City & State and City Limits, in partnership with MetroFocus, present a new series: “The Five Borough Ballot.”

So far, most residents haven’t found what they’re looking for—or even done much looking.

As he smokes a cigarette outside the senior center on the edge of the massive Van Dyke Houses development in Brownsville in early April, stealing is on Angelo’s mind.

He points to the garbage-laced metal fence around the patio next to where he was standing. “Why is there only one garbage can there?” asks Angelo, a Latino man in his 40s wearing a Yankees cap and clutching a rubber ball in his non-cigarette hand. He means this as a critique of the people running the Van Dyke complex for the New York City Housing Authority. Sort of.

The Five Borough Ballot

“But at the same time, when they put out more garbage cans, the guys steal them and sell them for scrap metal,” he says. “Yeah. Really. So people complain, ‘In the suburbs, they don’t have just one garbage can!’ And I say, ‘Yeah, but in the suburbs, people don’t steal the garbage cans either.’”

A couple days earlier, the papers had carried allegations of a different kind of theft: State Sen. Malcolm Smith and City Councilman Daniel Halloran had been arrested on charges they conspired to steal Smith a way into the Republican mayoral primary.

They’re just allegations at this point, but the general reaction at Van Dyke is not one of surprise. People there are used to thieves, whether they sit in high office or, as many elderly residents fear, lay in wait in the elevators on the days people cash their Social Security checks.

Still, some take the scandal personally, like Geraldine Jenkins, who has lived at Van Dyke for 50 years. “I don’t think it’s fair for them to treat us like that,” she says.

*    *    *   *   *

Inside the senior center, lunch is fish and French fries. As the meal wraps up, a hyper-energetic physical trainer going by the nickname “Chico Malo” (or “Bad Boy”) recruits a dozen seniors to do calisthenics at the front of the room as dance music pulsates from a far corner. The almost exclusively female crowd pumps their biceps and works their quads. “Are you weak?” Chico Malo shouts. “No!” they shout back. “Are you weak?!”

“No!!”

One diner who was surprised by the Smith-Halloran scandal was Lisa Kenner, the head of the resident association for the 22-building development. She has met Smith and liked him. As a former Democratic district leader, Kenner is unusually engaged in politics—a couple months back she took the train into Manhattan to see an Independence Party forum, just to stay abreast of what was said there. That proximity to politics has made her less cynical than some of her neighbors, or at least more selective in her cynicism.

“I don’t think most of them are corrupt, no,” she says of the politicians she has met. “I believe a lot of them are honest and they have the community at heart when they took the job to serve. They really wanted to serve the people.”

More than simply being about power and money, Kenner says she believes corruption is a symptom of a broader narcissism. “That’s why you’ve got to pray,” she says. “You’ve got to pray when you go and take care of business, talking about the people in the community because … when you became an elected official it stopped becoming about you. It’s about the people and that what they’ve got to realize.”

At the lunch table Jessica Locklear, who has lived in the area since 1984, sits with a copy of the Daily Newsin front of her. Despite being a newspaper reader, she seems barely aware of the mayoral campaign. “I’m not really paying attention. Is John Liu running?” she asks, “I think I’ll vote for him.”

Jenkins isn’t really paying attention either, but says she’s certain she’ll vote for a Democrat. Why? “Because I’ve always been a Democrat. I don’t like Republicans. They don’t want to give the poor people anything. ” What does she want in a mayor? “Someone who’ll help the seniors,” she answers. “Somebody that’s going to help everybody. I don’t care what color you are, what race you are.”

This is a constant refrain in Brownsville. Ask someone which of the candidates they’re for, and they’ll say they want someone who’s for them. It’s a vague notion, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful. The fact that Mayor Bloomberg is perceived as notbeing for them is the key ingredient in the mix of scorn and mockery that the mention of the mayor’s name brings. People may not know the names of people who are running for mayor in 2013, but they are always deeply pleased that Bloomberg is not among them.

*    *    *   *   *

Kenner is joined at the lunch table by her friend Brenda Martin, who recently retired from the Administration for Children’s Services after 27 years. After a bit of prodding, she talks over lunch about one abused child she encountered during her time at ACS, an 11-year-old girl who’d been beaten and raped. Martin became an unofficial foster parent to the girl, now in her 20s and living in North Carolina with her family. They still talk on the phone every day, Martin giving advice, the girl trying to convince Martin to move to North Carolina. Martin may not be much engaged in the mayoral race, but not because she’s disengaged from the wider world.

As Chico Malo finishes up the workout, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries steps into the room. This is shocking. Jeffries won’t face election for another 19 months, so his arrival is a direct counter to the frequent complaint in Brownsville, and other low-income neighborhoods, that politicians only come around when they need votes. As far as Kenner recalls, it’s only the second time in recent memory that someone in power has just popped in to the senior center. “The only other one I can remember is Darlene Mealy,” she says.

Jeffries says he’s come back to thank residents for electing him and to enlist them in fighting the “mean-spirited people” in the Republican party that controls the House. “They want to call Social Security and Medicare ‘giveaway programs,’” he says.” They’re not giveaway programs. You’ve paid for them all your life.”

As Jeffries works the room, handing out handshakes and business cards, an Asian woman comes up to Kenner. ” I think I’ve seen him before,” the woman says, pointing at Jeffries.

“Yes,” says Kenner. “He’s your congressman.”

Read the full story here.

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